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It’s mob that build our capability in health research

As black researchers in Australia, we regularly hear about how best to build our capacity in education and research so that we may further contribute to the academic space. But capacity is not a word that sits well with many a blackfulla as it suggests an embedded deficit before we have even begun, and the deficit conversations around who we are, what we know and what we can do seem to infiltrate so much that those who peddle it aren’t even aware of what they are suggesting.

In health, we know all too well where we are in terms of statistics, rhetoric, policy and ideas that regularly come to nothing. The policy from government suggests that we are the problem and they are the solution, all the while removing vital funding from the community services that build on improving our health. Whilst government suggests they are ‘closing the gap’ in tackling Indigenous health disparities, they simultaneously remove funding from programs and initiatives that actively work to improve the health of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men, women and children across Australia. They also undermine research approaches (and constant conclusions to that research) that says that more needs to be done when they ignore the impact that research can have on communities. The power imbalance between institutions and structures of dominance are in full play within the health system, and as Aboriginal people we can sadly reflect on how that has been firmly imprinted onto our psyche.

But there is an army of strong black health researchers and a deadly health workforce that works to bring about change in this area every day. Recently at an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Conference there was listed on the program various successful community driven and university-led projects in health. From a study involving mortality rates of children in the Northern Territory (from birth to five years), to a community organisation developing a shawl for women to wear while breastfeeding children, and awareness programs on Indigenous eye health. There are numerous battalions of soldiers, working to fight in health, in research, and in changing the notion that we as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are incapable of working to find out own solutions.

The policy from government suggests that we are the problem and they are the solution, all the while removing vital funding from the community services that build on improving our health

Part of this gathering of troops is steeped in the history of leadership for change and strong advocacy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health environments. From the emergence of the Aboriginal medical services in 1971, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been actively contributing to impacting on bettering the health of their families and communities. Our call to action in building this army has been happening over decades, from early beginnings towards a determined health workforce – the largest employer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research workforce has steadily grown to be a changing force in the academic environment. Another integral element of the growing health workforce is in further building on existing capabilities in research. The Lowitja Institute has recently undertaken research into how best we can continue to build on the workforce – how do we support emerging researchers and give them all they need to take on this long and already hard-fought campaign?

Part of this gathering of troops is steeped in the history of leadership for change and strong advocacy in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health environments.

This year, there has been a total of 81 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander people undertaking Health Research at university, with 44 of those in the health discipline, 17 undertaking Nursing degrees and approximately 14 in Medical Studies. Since 2001, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health researchers in Australia has grown from approximately 30 to between 80 and 90 this year. With this emerging workforce comes opportunities for change in the overall statistics in health, and in ways where we can impact on what is researched on us as people, and how we are researched.

However, the question still remains –do we have lasting impact? As a researcher trying to impact greatly in areas of women’s representation, identity, leadership and social justice, I ask myself what affect my contribution has to the frontline, and if it doesn’t reverberate at that level, is it changing policy from government at the other extreme?

When I remember what got me into study, I wasn’t considering the accumulative struggle, or the building of a self-determined cohort of black health researchers and leaders. Now it is an all- encompassing thought. I get to build on that thought each day and work in an area where you strive to impact policy. It is at times frustrating, but I choose to believe that it is also in the smaller areas where I see the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research. It is the community-led innovations, the relationships you nurture in research with other mob in your cohort and the ideas from strong and resilient people where you get to see the magic happen.

This article is in Partnership with the University of Queensland’s – Poche Centre for Indigenous Health. The National Conference on Indigenous Health Workforce Leadership will examine critical success factors for enabling Indigenous leadership across the health system. Friday 2nd Nov, follow the event on twitter #MovingBeyondTheFrontline

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